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As it turns out, traveling from the world of ideas to the land of the supercan isn’t that long a journey after all. Mary Cheh has just discovered that. She’s sitting in her office at George Washington University Law School, still wondering how it all happened. “I’m stunned,” she says. Cheh, 56, a GW law professor, won the Democratic primary for the Ward 3 D.C. Council seat earlier this month. She still has a Republican opponent in the general election, but reality suggests that her prosperous and left-leaning ward is more likely to elect Sean Penn than anyone the GOP would have to offer. She’s one of two area law professors to foray into local electoral politics for the first time this year, along with American University’s Jamin Raskin. For them, wrestling with theory will have to wait awhile. Cheh beat nine opponents for the chance to replace longtime council member Kathy Patterson. But she’s hardly fist-pumping her way through the campaign. She’s an academic, through and through. That means she’s dispassionately trying to figure out why she won. “I’m still processing it,” Cheh says. “I won every precinct. How did that happen?” Cheh has some experience with the District. She served as special counsel to Patterson (a friend) in the investigation of the D.C. police’s treatment of protesters. But that’s hardly the kind of thing that translates into votes. “I had no money, no experience, no organization,” she says. So Cheh descended from the ivory tower and did some door-knocking. She held 50 fund-raisers at area houses. (Many residents were surprised to find out she isn’t Asian. Cheh is Hungarian.) At the heart of her campaign lies the notion that Ward 3, despite its median income, isn’t a walled enclave, that the District’s problems touch its residents, as well. Schools. Gridlock. Crime. Her primary area of concern is emergency services, as evidenced by the perhaps preventable death of New York Times reporter David Rosenbaum in her Northwest ward earlier this year. Cheh originally considered throwing her hat in the ring when Patterson told her she was running for council chair. But first she called friends for advice. One of those people was AU’s Raskin. “Jamie,” Cheh said, “I’m thinking of running for D.C. Council.” Raskin laughed. “Funny you should mention that,” he said. He told her he was readying a run for the Maryland Senate. But where Cheh is measured and analytical, Raskin comes off as a cocksure pro, despite his newbie status. On a Tuesday afternoon one week after the primary, Raskin is still receiving congratulatory phone calls (he has no opponent in the general election) and juggling two buzzing BlackBerrys. His office, recently moved, is jammed with unopened boxes. Raskin, who made a name for himself as an election-law expert, had a mountain to climb. Ida Ruben, the incumbent — as Raskin repeatedly refers to her, showing that he has picked up the language of the insurgent campaign quite nicely — had a 30-year track record representing Silver Spring and Takoma Park in Annapolis. Officeholders rarely lose primaries, on any level. Raskin, 43, took an unorthodox approach. He began his campaign by trying to galvanize the artistic communities, launching Poets and Writers for Raskin and enlisting the aid of familiar Maryland suburbanites such as crime novelist George Pelecanos and musician Dar Williams. His ultimate goal was to build a candidacy using voters who weren’t part of “the machine.” Knocking on more than 10,000 doors, he built momentum throughout the summer, and Ruben began taking him seriously. So much so that she launched attack ads intimating that Raskin was in reality a pro-life conservative who helped get George W. Bush elected. (Her reasoning was based on Raskin’s support for third-party candidates such as Ross Perot in presidential elections. This region is one of the few bizarro places in America where candidates try to push one another to the right.) Ruben went as far as sending out a flier with Bush’s grinning face declaring “Thanks, Jamie!” Suddenly, Raskin, the election-law expert, discovered what life in the trenches of a campaign is really like. “When it first started, it was like a punch in the stomach,” he says. It backfired, as it did for Linda Cropp in her race against Adrian Fenty. Raskin thumped Ruben by snaring a whopping 66 percent of the vote. Ironically, Ruben’s ads helped swing more conservative Democrats over to Raskin. “She really helped me moderate my image,” he says. But now the tough part really begins. Two unabashed Whole Foods liberals, who ran on staying true to their principles, must navigate the currents of compromise. Their backers don’t want them on the sidelines. Their starry-eyed idealism may have to yield more than once to the cold pragmatism of horse-trading. Cheh, who in her career has worked on such global issues as international legal reform and model animal-welfare codes, now will have to spring into action when constituents call up with complaints about supercans — the giant trash cans that are a never-ending source of consternation in Ward 3 — blocking their alley. She concedes that all of it will be a learning experience. “I didn’t need this as a job,” Cheh says. “But I have good judgment, and I think people like good judgment.”
James Oliphant is editor in chief of Legal Times . His column runs twice a month.

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